The Baltimore news media scene is growing again, as the Baltimore Beat is relaunching as a nonprofit news operation, with its first print edition scheduled for release on Wednesday.
The Beat’s return as the city’s alternative newspaper comes after years of careful planning, hiring and building what its owners hope is a sustainable foundation.
“What I do think is really lacking (in Baltimore), not only an alternative weekly paper like City Paper was and like the Beat was and Beat will be, but we think it just lacks a free print paper,” said Brandon Soderberg, the Baltimore Beat’s Director of Operations.
Wednesday marks the return of an alt-weekly, but its print schedule is actually bi-weekly as staff works to create a “comprehensive snapshot of the city in that moment,” according to Soderberg.
Lisa Snowden, the Baltimore Beat’s Editor-in-Chief, sees this longer print cycle as an opportunity to deliver a product that offers more context and informs readers on broader implications.
“There’s the part that the Baltimore Sun and now also the Baltimore Banner plays in saying this thing happened,” she said. “But there also needs to be time to say, ‘Okay, wait a minute, that thing happened, but what does that mean long-term.’”
Snowden sees the Beat as answering that question every two weeks.
Building on an alt-weekly legacy
The Baltimore Beat first launched in 2017 after the Baltimore Sun Media Group closed Baltimore’s alt-weekly newspaper City Paper after a 40-year run. That was part a trend of papers like the New Times and Village Voice closing across the nation.
Soderberg, who at the time served as City Paper’s Editor-in-Chief, and Snowden, an editor, started talking about launching a new alternative newspaper, and they did so just two-weeks after City Paper’s final issue hit the newsstands.
But that first endeavor was short-lived after the group’s initial funders pulled within months.
“I don’t think there’s a newspaper in America that would generate a serious amount of money in only four months, and we were under the impression we had time to grow,” Soderberg said. “So after the Beat closed, we were really frustrated. It kind of became clear to me that we were all interested in bringing it back in whatever form we could.”
Representing those with the ‘least amount of power’
Since then, Baltimore’s media scene has seen a resurgence, notably with the launch of the Baltimore Banner as a subscription model non-profit that aims to rival the Baltimore Sun. But at the Beat, the now-nonprofit news operation is looking to fill what Snowden and Soderberg still sees as a gap in reporting and coverage. The Baltimore Beat aims to cover underrepresented communities and report on issues important to residents all across the city.
“People that are thought about the least and have the least access to news and information in journalism, if they are served, then everybody else is served,” Snowden said. “It’s really thinking about the people that have the least amount of power.”
Snowden said her experiences in other newsrooms shaped the Baltimore Beat’s approach to news.
“I want the Beat to be a home for Black reporters to come, be nurtured, be able to do good work,” she said, “because sometimes in white newsrooms, the lived experience of a Black person is not always valued.”
Snowden said she experienced that gap while covering the trials of officers involved in the killing of Freddie Gray, amid a gaggle of white reporters.
Snowden felt the weight of the fact that Gray could have been her brother or cousin or neighbor in a way that some other journalists covering the trial might not have felt. She wasn’t able to just “leave it at work.”
“It’s important that we are a Black newspaper,” she said. “I think that there are ways that you can look at policing or look at power in the city that you can only really experience if you are a person that is a victim of that power sometimes,” she said. “There (are) reporters that maybe have never thought about the police as anything but people that can be helpful. You’re bringing who you are to this job, and so it’s hard to really report the bad side of police if you have not experienced the bad side of police.”
The Beat is billing itself as a “Black-led, Black-controlled, nonprofit newspaper” promising “equitable, accountable and rigorous” journalism, with a focus on neighbors and neighborhoods.
“We want our stories to be more community focused and less focused on the powerful,” Soderberg said. “I’m not particularly interested if you get a fancy quote from the mayor in a story. I’m much more interested in talking to people affected by these policies that we often ask the mayor about after they’ve happened.”
And they want to be read by that same community. For the news to reach the target audience, it had to be physically accessible and free.
Soderberg wasn’t interested in an app or another digital distribution strategy. The Beat will do what’s worked for news operations for hundreds of years: be available physically all across the city and be free.
“The need for print does not come from a nostalgia or a fetish with physical objects like vinyl records or something like that,” he said. “It comes from realizing that the easiest and most uncomplicated intervention to people not getting access to news is making a print paper and putting it out in the street and giving it out for free.”
Art is also newsworthy
In keeping with the alt-weekly spirit, the Baltimore Beat plans a robust Arts and Culture section.
The Beat’s commitment to its no-cost price point and insistence on being physically printed on paper is a bonus for local artists, according to Arts and Culture Editor Teri Henderson.
“Baltimore is a predominantly Black city and a lot of the things that we talk about in our mission statement and our values is how there’s a digital divide,” she said. “As an artist, having your work in print is a big deal. A lot is lost and flattened online. Our focus is the beautiful print product, and it’s free.”
Henderson says the paper will serve “Black, brown and queer artists” as well, lifting up underrepresenated voices in the Baltimore art scene, by “making spaces for people that don’t look like what you think a typical artist might look like.”
“There’s a lot of organizers, artists, traders, critics who are saying that structures are based in white, patriarchal standards, and that doesn’t have to be,” Henderson said, adding that the city already has a community built around challenging those standards.
The paper’s arts reporting will also take on work, shows, galleries and events from nontraditional spaces. Henderson praised Snowden and Deputy Editor J. Brian Charles for the freedom to focus coverage through that lens.
“Talking about race, about gender, and sexual identity, get shoved into the opinion section, and there’s nothing wrong with the opinion section, but those are also they’re newsworthy,” Snowden said. “If there’s a movement in our country to erase trans people from our society, and a trans artist is addressing this, then that’s as important as the story about the Proud Boys showing up at a school to intimidate people.”
A reimagining of philanthropy
The careful planning for the new nonprofit paper was made possible by a giant gift from the Lillian Holofcener Charitable Foundation, which nearly emptied its coffers to support the venture with a no-strings-attached donation.
Following the police killing of George Floyd in 2020 and the subsequent racial reckoning across the U.S., Baltimore nonprofit attorney Adam Holofcener worked with his family to direct the foundation’s funds “back in the hands of folks who had been, at least structurally speaking, divested.”
“What we were trying to do was make an equitable choice and the equitable choice was giving folks the opportunity to fail, giving folks the opportunity to learn, giving folks the opportunity to dream,” Holofcener said. “That, generally – in our backwards, systemically unjust system – is only available for privileged folks.”
For the Holofceners that looked like a $1 million grant to the Baltimore Beat.
The gift gave Soderberg and Snowden the leeway to grow the organization, plan the paper’s launch and print schedule, and build the business without worrying about deliverables or quarterly grant reporting.
Baltimore residents can support the newspaper’s work and mission with a donation of any size.
Supporters can also join the staff Friday, Aug. 12 for a launch celebration with Current Space. Tickets are $20 and available online. One of many parties, according to staff.
“We want to be an organization that has fun and enjoys themselves and isn’t only serious,” Soderberg said. “So we try to have events that feel more like parties. We believe that we can be serious and fun at the same time.”